As Ed Sheeran gets ready to play four nights in Ireland, Andy Welch discovers that modesty is still his number one trait
ED SHEERAN is sitting in his dressing room in Melbourne Cricket Ground. In the background, Tom Jones can be heard soundchecking.
“We’re singing the Prince song, ‘Kiss’, together,” says Sheeran, “but we’ve already rehearsed that.”
The night before, Sheeran and his new pal Jones – who performed together in Australia last week – went out for a few glasses of wine, and 74-year-old Jones regaled 23-year-old Sheeran with stories of appearing in The Simpsons and hanging out with Elvis Presley in Las Vegas.
This is the world in which Sheeran now lives, where rather than him seeking out the biggest names in music to learn from, they request an audience with him.
Elton John asked to perform with Sheeran at the Grammy Awards in 2013, and Paul McCartney recently invited him for a margarita.
“I wasn’t expecting that one. I was with my parents and ready to go home for the night, and the next minute, that happened,” he says, like it was no big deal.
He counts Taylor Swift and Harry Styles among his closest showbiz friends, and while recording his second album x – pronounced multiply –last year, Friends star Courteney Cox let him stay in her Malibu home.
Sheeran had been performing in LA when Spin City and Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, and his actor wife Christa Miller, asked if their daughter could have her photo taken with him after the show. “The next night, I was having dinner in Malibu and Bill and Christa were in the same restaurant. They came over to thank me for being nice to their daughter and then invited me to a house party. I thought, ’Why not?’ It turned out to be Courteney’s house party. It was miles from anywhere, and I’d sent my driver home so I had to stay over, and that’s when we became friends,” the singer explains.
He really has come a long way from Framlingham, the Suffolk village where he grew up, but spend any amount of time with Sheeran and it’s not hard to understand why so many A-listers want to hang out with him; he’s impeccably mannered for a start, and down to earth in a way most multi-million-selling artists just aren’t.
He admits he’s changed a bit, though, since his first album was released and worldwide fame followed. He’s a bit more paranoid, and wary around new people, he says, but he’s generally much happier with his lot than he was three years ago.
“I was quite well known among people my age, from the mix-tapes and YouTube videos that were doing the rounds, so I would get stopped and asked for photos and things,” he says. “That still happens, although back four years ago, I was broke, so there wasn’t the upside. Now I’m financially comfortable, and I’ve made my family financially comfortable, so I can see the rewards.”
Other musicians seek him out too, including Pharrell Williams and producer Rick Rubin, who both went to Sheeran offering their services on a collaboration. The track with Williams, ‘Sing’, resulted in a No 1 single, while Rubin produced two tracks on x, ‘Don’t’ and ‘Bloodstream’.
Of ‘Sing’, he says it was the first time he’s tried to write a song without a deep, emotional meaning.
“Going in with Pharrell, I knew I wanted to make a bona fide pop song and we were just trying some things out. It’s just me explaining how I had fun on a night out, had a drink and had a dance with a girl, and that’s it.
“I’ve never really done that before, and it was nice to do it and to not worry about how it would make people feel, and whether it was me opening up enough. I just wanted to write a song that was fun.”
He says if the aftermath of his debut taught him anything, it was that his songs were being used as emotional crutches by his fans.
“I’d get people talking to me saying they’d listened to my record on their own in their bedroom, while eating ice cream and crying, or that they’d listened to my record after they’d broken up with a partner, so it was a very melancholic album.
“I learned I need to give people some fun here and there. I am not a hugely depressed person, I like to have fun and the melancholy doesn’t reflect who I am. Sometimes, it’s just good to sing about stuff that’s pointless. ‘Talk Dirty’ by Jason Derulo is not a song that comes from a lot of heartbreak or upset, but it is a great pop song, and I want to do that too.”
Despite the success of his first bona fide pop song, he still doesn’t see himself as a pop singer, however much as he’d like to be.
“I really want to be in that world, among those big pop singers,” he says, referring to the likes of his friends Taylor Swift and Pharrell Williams. “I think I am placed in that world when it comes to award shows and things, but I don’t get mentioned in the same sentence as those stars when it comes to music.
“It’s not about sales these days, either, it’s about status. My sales can match up to most other big artists, but I don’t get mentioned in the same breath. It’s all to do with the way you carry and portray yourself.”
If he’s not seen as a pop singer yet – he’s more your little brother’s scruffy mate who plays the guitar – it won’t be long. So far, x is the fastest-selling album in the UK this year, having sold 180,000 copies during its first week,and the record has also done very well in Ireland.
His grasp of the way records sell is second to none, and some might accuse him of careerism. It’s simply not the done thing for an artist to admit they’re so acutely aware of how their music is selling, or how many tickets have sold for a forthcoming tour. Of course, Sheeran’s not really an exception here – almost every artist is just as aware of this stuff as he is, he just talks about it in interviews, while they feign ignorance.
After the UK leg of his tour, he’s off around the world again, due to finish up next August, when he plans to take a break and write some more songs.“This is the first tour I’ve ever done where I set off on one date and know when I’m going to finish. All my other tours have started, and then 30-date tours in other countries keep getting added as we go along,” says Sheeran. “If there’s one thing I’ve been lacking for the past few years, it’s structure.”
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